Since ancient times, the word maya has been extensively used in Indian philosophy to explain the relationship among nature, living beings and God. The Sanskrit word maya meaning “illusion” has successfully penetrated Indian politics – thanks to Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief and former Uttar Pradesh chief minister Mayawati Das.

Mayawati’s recent announcement of not allying with the Indian National Congress (INC) in the upcoming state elections of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh is being seen as a big blow to the Congress’ efforts to build up a grand coalition of opposition forces to counter the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

One question that obviously strikes the mind is why Mayawati is trying to stay away from the Congress party. Is this a positive signal to the BJP that she is even ready for a post-poll tie-up with the party if the situation demands? It is to be noted that Mayawati, a four-time chief minister of Uttar Pradesh – the most politically significant state, with 80 seats in the Lok Sabha, lower house of the Indian Parliament – had earlier allied with the BJP. Twice, she even held the post of chief minister with the support of the BJP.

Mayawati, reports say, demanded more seats in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan than her party’s capability of winning them. But the Rajasthan Congress unit was against the idea of an alliance with the BSP, and this prompted Maya to call off talks on and alliance with the INC. Already in Chhattisgarh, she has allied with a party led by former Congress leader Ajit Jogi, the Chhattisgarh Janata Congress, and the alliance has come as a relief to the 15-year-old incumbent Raman Singh-led BJP government in the state.

The BSP supremo is aware that the hegemony of the INC in Indian politics is history and that it definitely needs her help if the Modi-led BJP is to be thwarted. But she is a shrewd politician and knows that simply allying with the INC will not benefit her party.

It is a known fact that Mayawati still nurtures the dream of becoming the prime minister of the country. She doesn’t just want to be seen as a junior ally of the INC; rather, she wishes to expand her party base beyond Uttar Pradesh by taking advantage of the Congress’ weakness. Already there have been reports that the incumbent BJP governments in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are facing strong opposition, but the striking fact is that the people of these states are not averse to voting for Modi in next year’s general election.

Mayawati might be aware of such reports, and that’s why there is a hesitation from her side to allying with the grand old party, as Modi remains the most popular leader in the country, far ahead of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Although she has blamed the state Congress leaders for the failure of talks and expressed confidence in Rahul Gandhi and his mother, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Maya’s message is clear: Only if the INC accedes a respectful space will the BSP help it build the Grand Alliance against Modi. However, this is not easy for the Congress.

The grand old party knows that if it bows down to her, its chances of revival in politically significant Uttar Pradesh will be much less in the near future. Mayawati’s strength is her Dalit (lower-caste Hindus) vote bank, which used to be a key to Congress’ hold in Uttar Pradesh. After the rise of the BSP, Dalits started to move away from the INC, delivering it a significant political blow in Uttar Pradesh.

However, in other states the BSP overall failed to make an impact on the Dalit vote bank, though commanding a small amount in the Hindi states, but Congress still has sway over it. Dalits account for 16% of the total Indian population. That’s why Congress is not willing to accept wholeheartedly the demands of Mayawati as it may only cut the size of the party and help the rise of Mayawati beyond the borders of Uttar Pradesh, and Congress can’t afford that. Yet again, Congress is not in a position to leave Mayawati.

Although a bitter critic of the Modi-led BJP, Maya’s past says she is not averse to the idea of helping the BJP if the saffron party has a better deal to offer her.

Mayawati is aware of the weakness of the BJP. However, at present she is not sure who will win the 2019 elections, so she is trying to buy more time to test the political mood. Out of power since 2012, Mayawati can’t afford to be against the powers that be for long. One thing to be noted is that the BJP’s sharp attacks are mostly targeted toward Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party, leaving aside the other opposition regional forces like the BSP. This means the BJP has also kept its window open for dialogue with Mayawati.

If the “nationalist” BJP can ally with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of Jammu and Kashmir, known for its softness toward Kashmiri separatists, then why not with the BSP? Already, the ruling BJP has been going too soft on Dalits, even reverting the Supreme Court order regarding the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe Act (Prevention of Atrocities) with the help of legislation.

Also, Mayawati is aware of the BJP’s intrusion into her Dalit vote bank, even enjoying considerable success by pulling the non-Jatav Dalits out of the BSP’s hold. The saffron party is now even trying to win over the Jatav Dalits, Mayawati’s strong support base, and this has definitely alerted her to go hard on Congress to give a soft signal to the BJP.

If the BSP doesn’t ally with the INC, it will only benefit the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and that is what the saffron party desires. Mayawati is aware that if the Congress-led opposition fails to win in 2019 and Modi returns to power, it will be difficult for her to hold on to the Dalit vote bank, as the BJP will then be in a better position to lure the Dalits. So she is not in any mood to antagonize the ruling party.

Adding to her woes is the rise of young Dalit leaders like Jignesh Mevani in Gujarat and Chandrashekhar Azad in Uttar Pradesh. So Mayawati has no other option but to keep the windows open for both the BJP and the Congress and play safe, waiting for the right time, as another debacle could send her career into the political wilderness, and she definitely knows that.